‘The Americans’ reaches new heights in “The Summit”

Much of Elizabeth’s undercover work this season has focused on digging up intel to help the Soviets during the upcoming nuclear armaments summit with the U.S.

Elizabeth’s record to this point of the series has had its high points, the occasional bullet wounds and narrow escapes notwithstanding.

This season, however, she has been forced to work almost entirely without her husband, Philip’s, help, and perhaps because of her nonstop exhaustion and lack of sufficient backup, she’s killed more than she wanted to, and failed pretty much constantly.

Finally, the nuclear summit has arrived.

We know with the advantage of hindsight and intrepid journalism (then and now) how uneven the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were in terms of nuclear arsenal.

As Jerome Wiesner wrote in The Atlantic circa 1982, “If the Soviet Union could carry out the worst attack that the alarmists have been able to imagine, the United States would not only retain its relative position but would have enough nuclear weapons to destroy several Soviet Unions.”

In addition to spy work related to the summit, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) has been trying desperately to dig up specific data about an advanced radiation sensor the U.S. possesses that would be vital for Soviet defenses. She killed security guards at a warehouse precisely because of that mission, which thus far has yielded nada in the way of useful intel.

But the summit has been uppermost in her mind, which is why when she arrives home at the beginning of “Summit,” she’s snappish with husband Philip, who’s presenting with his now-permanent dolorous expression.

She is snappish, and yet understanding, for when she sees his face, she attempts to reassure him, “Don’t worry, I won’t use you again in a mission. I know it’s hard on you.”

Philip, though, has decided to come clean about his interactions with Oleg Burov, a former KGB officer now in the States. Oleg supports Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev over his domestic political opposition. Gorbachev favors the U.S. and Soviet Union mutually drawing down nuclear arms stockpiles.

Earlier in the season, Elizabeth was called down to Mexico City for a meeting with a Soviet general concerned that one of Gorbachev’s chief negotiators at the summit might be a turncoat. Since then, she has been tasked with divining what both sides are working through prior to the actual summit, and she has been wearing a necklace, gifted to her by the general, that contains a cyanide pill to be used in case of capture.

As gruesome as last week’s episode turned, what with team stalwart Marilyn being decapitated post-death, there is something harder about having to be so intimately connected to death at almost every waking moment.

No wonder Elizabeth has been shakier as of late, and no wonder she feels betrayed by her husband, who informs her, “[Oleg] told me there are people at the Centre who want to get rid of Gorbachev, and he wants to stop it.”

What else has Philip told this unnamed Soviet? “I told him you were the most dedicated loyal person ever to serve the organization.”

Elizabeth is in no mood for backhanded compliments and when she learns her husband has been snitching to Oleg for a couple of months, she asks why her husband didn’t tell her.

“I tried—”

“You love to talk. If you really wanted to, you could’ve done it,” she says with particular scorn. They exchange verbal blows back and forth.

They’ve battled before, but this fight is particular wounding, perhaps because the stakes are so high and their emotional fragility at its crumbling worst.

Actor Matthew Rhys subtly uses a Russian accent to undertone his dialogue during this scene. Melancholic Misha has always existed underneath American go-getter Philip. As both his professional lives deteriorate, Philip’s true voice is beginning to emerge.

He was the one wielding the ax last episode. They’ve experienced worst moments on this show, perhaps, but as we see in this episode, Philip is not capable any longer of bouncing back. Only of deflating still further.

They don’t hug it out. Elizabeth, as usual, needs to go to work.

She has been taking shifts disguised as a home nurse. Her patient is Erica Haskard (Miriam Shor), the cancer-stricken wife of Glenn (Scott Cohen), a U.S. nuclear arms negotiator.

Elizabeth has managed to collect some intel during her shifts by snapping photos of Glenn’s papers, but, slowly, Erica’s fierce, artistic spirit has seeped into Elizabeth’s consciousness.

She is seeing Erica’s art with a more informed eye, and, coached by Erica, has been learning how to draw. Elizabeth tends to see white Americans as being crass, spoiled, and frivolous by nature.

Therefore, American art lacked enough seriousness to count for Elizabeth until she met Erica, until she realized, as Erica explained last episode, that seeing with an artist’s eye means stepping out of the way of one’s ego and finding out how to truly witness the material world.

Elizabeth likes that explanation. Art’s ability to connect one to transcendent themes might not sink into her conscious brain, but Erica’s guidance has helped Elizabeth access parts of her emotions that heretofore have been firmly repressed.

Elizabeth in the guise of her mousy little nurse walks upstairs and finds an appalling scene. Glenn has followed his wife’s dying wishes and given her what he believed to be a deadly dose of morphine. Sadly, he was wrong. Since then, Erica has been lingering in a coma with the type of gasping one might see in brain stem damage (excellent acting by Shor).

Glenn, sobbingly remorse, is afraid to call an ambulance. He tells Elizabeth he called the U.S. negotiating team and turned in his resignation. He regrets having spent so much time at work.

That’s it, then. Elizabeth’s job is basically done there. But in her role as a nurse and as a person who has grown to respect Erica’s fierce strength, she realizes she has more to do.

My late partner was a critical care nurse who spoke often of how her job entailed caring for families as well as for the sick. She saw how doctors, through selective medication strategies, could ease the passing of a patient too painfully long at death’s door. She, like so many nurses, had to carry out those orders, and thus dealt with the impact of the decisions.

Which is why Elizabeth, a woman who has dealt out death blows, on this occasion performs a needful task for the husband, that of finishing the death of his wife.

The Americans is a show that, on the surface, is merely about spies and the enmity between nations. At its heart, however, the show is the narrative of the marriage and friendship between Philip and Elizabeth. Their emotional arc throughout has been intense.

After sending Glenn out of the room, Elizabeth thrusts a thick artist’s brush down Erica’s throat, then, closing the woman’s nostrils, maintains her pose through Erica’s final, weak struggle.

She cleans off Erica’s face, and gives her a gentle kiss on the forehead. This wasn’t a simple, robotic task for Elizabeth on any level. For probably the first time in her life, she killed for a humane reason.

She calls Scott back into the room and tells him to spend a little time with Erica, since this would be for the last time.

Downstairs, she pulls out her camera and shoots images of Scott’s papers, but spends more time caught up in staring at Erica’s paintings. She’s gotten out of her own way, one senses, and because of that, allowed Erica to teach her an important lesson about the crucial need for an artistic vision in life, regardless of whether one is a genius at painting, music, or the like.

Glenn calls her back upstairs. Now more in control of his emotions, he passes on Erica’s wish that Elizabeth receive a painting. She manages to stick the large painting in the back of the station wagon she uses as her cover, but back at the garage she uses as a transition point between missions, she wavers on whether or not to keep the work.

The piece portrays, in blacks and grays, a moody grim-faced woman. Perhaps a reminder of Elizabeth’s mother, of Erica, of Elizabeth herself?

After she unstaples the canvas from the frame, she starts to set it aflame, then hesitates. Fine, she won’t burn it. She rolls up the canvas and jams it in to a locker.

Then again, no. The canvas, if discovered by the FBI, would be a direct line between negotiator Glenn and Elizabeth-as-nurse.

Almost groaning in frustration, Elizabeth pulls out the canvas and burns it. Has to be done, yet as she watches, she’s committing the canvas to memory as indelibly as any set of data required for her usual missions.

However deeply her time with Erica affected her, Elizabeth is still a pro, or tries to be, as she carries out her next mission, which is to honey-pot Jackson, a young Congressional intern with security clearance at the State department.

As vivacious security industry consultant Wendy Gallagher, Elizabeth has wooed cineaste Jackson with talk of foreign films then, in this episode, expertly angles him into thinking he’s the one who makes the first pass.

The pass leading to a touchdown, Jackson (Austin Abrams) is easy to convince to carry a box into the State department, there to leave in an office.

But when they meet up later, after “Wendy” talks him into picking up the box, he doesn’t look like a lovestruck intern. More like a young man who realizes he’s in far too deep.

As she drives them to an alley, Jackson reveals he knows about the listening device hidden in the box. If Elizabeth had been blessed with more time, and a rested brain, she might have come up with a less hairbrained plan than trusting an intern with planting a bug, but there she is, sitting in the car with Jackson, dealing with the wreckage.

The obvious move is to kill Jackson. She can’t. She tells him, “Don’t mention this to anybody…Go back to school. Enjoy your last semester and go into the pavement business. Go.”

Afterward, she is stunned that she let him get away. One can blame (or credit) her with recognizing how close in age he is to her daughter, Paige, or maybe she has finally hit her murder limit.

The bug recorded a critical conversation between Gorbachev’s lead negotiator, Nesterenko, and U.S. personnel. He appears to be representing his leader’s position of desiring both countries to reduce nuclear armament, and to eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons.

He isn’t handing over state secrets, which is what the Soviet general Elizabeth met in Mexico City had predicted would happen.

When in a walk-and-talk, Elizabeth tells handler Claudia that Nesterenko didn’t say anything traitorous, Claudia (Margo Martindale) tells her, “New orders. You need to take care of him today or tomorrow.”

Elizabeth reluctantly waits in the shadows as Nesterenko exits the building where negotiations are taking place, yet when she walks by him, she is unable to shoot.

Again, Elizabeth’s face betrays her stunned reaction to her body’s failure to perform as usual. Back in control, she meets Claudia at the safe house and says bluntly that she will not kill Nesterenko.

After some obfuscation, Claudia tells her why Nesterenko must be killed. “Back home, we have a leader who has no sense of our history…of the price we’ve paid…It’s almost too late to stop him.”

After his assassination, operatives will make it appear as though he was giving away to the Americans an important defense program.

“So, Mexico, everything it was all this—to get rid of Gorbachev,” Elizabeth erupts.

Claudia points out that yes, they also needed the radiation sensor Elizabeth had vainly been trying to obtain, but Gorbachev’s removal was uppermost in her faction’s objectives.

For Elizabeth, who is a consummate party member, Gorbachev is at the top of the organizational structure. Helping to carry out a coup is not remotely in her skill-set.

One may argue, from our vantage point, that Gorbachev made disastrous decisions affecting the Soviet Union in both international dealings as well as internal policy matters.

Perhaps a coup wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, based on those points, but Elizabeth is faced with the possibility of her leader being overthrown just when the Soviet Union and U.S. are on the brink of reducing nuclear weapons.

As many American lives as she’s taken over the years, her mission all along has been to reduce the threat of war for her fellow citizens. Take a life here, save countless lives back home.

Elizabeth’s moral logic will not allow her to follow Claudia and her faction’s bidding.

Turned down, Claudia warns, “I can’t make you do anything, but Elizabeth, keep quiet. After all these years of serving your country, don’t throw it all away now.”

Elizabeth’s sense of loyalty to the overall leader’s vision of backing nuclear nonproliferation was not matched by the United States after the real-life events depicted in this show occurred.

As described by Stephen F. Cohen in The Nation, “Beginning in the 1990s, successive U.S. administrations—under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—sought de facto nuclear superiority over post-Soviet Russia. Animated by rampant post–Cold War (misconceived) triumphalism and by a perception that Russia was now too weak, demoralized, or supplicant to compete, they did so in three ways: by expanding NATO to Russia’s borders; by funding ever more destructive, “precise,” and “usable” nuclear weapons; and, in 2002, by unilaterally withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.”

A decisive nuclear ramp-down, therefore, however ardently desired by Gorbachev, was to be inflicted upon the Soviet Union with vastly unequal terms dictated by the United States.

Meanwhile, on the American side of the 1980s Cold War, Jennings neighbor and FBI agent Stan Beeman is continuing to help his friend and colleague, Dennis Aderholt, with the agency’s effort to track down Soviet agents.

Dennis (Brandon J. Dirden) tells him the FBI is waiting on FISA warrants for certain garages that fall within the FBI’s parameters of being suspicious leases; i.e., Soviet-paid. Could one of the warrants be for the garage both Elizabeth and Phil have visited?

Stan (Noah Emmerich) keeps thinking about all those witness drawings of suspected Soviet agents. Could Philip and Elizabeth be spies, despite his inability to identify them from the drawings?

Back home, he pulls out a photo of Elizabeth from the family album and goes to question fast-food employee Curtis, who used to work for the late Gregory, a committed revolutionary who had a deep friendship (and one-time relationship) with Elizabeth.

Because Stan treated Curtis decently during that previous interrogation and arranged for him to have a lesser prison sentence, Curtis gives up information freely, thus proving the value of not beating the hell out of a suspect.

Curtis is unsure as to whether Elizabeth’s photo matches his memory of Gregory’s friend. Two details stick out for Curtis and thus for Stan. The woman was beautiful with TV commercial-quality hair, and she smoked like a chimney.

Two details that describe Elizabeth, and countless other white women. Stan, though, is unwilling to abandon his suspicions.

As for Philip, who is Stan’s best friend, this is a troubling episode on several fronts. He acts like a man about to make a serious decision. To defect, or to kill himself? Hard to tell.

He calls son Henry’s dorm, but Henry is not available, then Philip visits his former employee, Stavos, who had been with Elizabeth and Philip’s travel agency from the very beginning.

Philip apologizes for firing Stavos, explaining that he is in deep financial trouble, and that he doesn’t know if the business is going to survive.

Stavos (Anthony Arkin) isn’t particularly sympathetic, but his next words are unnerving for Philip to hear, “Whatever was going on in the back room, I never called the police and I never will. I was raised to be loyal.”

If Philip ever thought he had once been a consummate spy, Stavos just now punctured that balloon.

Philip’s next move is to be fitted with a new suit. The style is typical late ‘80s in that while it’s not garish, the suit is too exaggerated in cut by modern standards.

A funeral suit, or something nice to wear if he flees to Canada? Information incomplete. Or perhaps he’s indulging in shopping therapy, a self-destructive capitalistic practice given his current level of debt.

Philip’s next move is to visit a video store that evening while dressed in disguise. He picks out a Soviet movie called “The Garage (Гараж).”

Spy work dictates one shouldn’t leave clues around as to your country of origin. Philip watching this film at home represents his confused desire to connect with something, anything, from his birthplace.

He doesn’t know that neighbor Stan is watching from his second-floor bedroom window the Jennings house. The flickering TV screen appears too fuzzy to make out from Stan’s viewpoint, particularly since he isn’t using a set of binoculars.

Stan’s enigmatic wife, Renee, enters the bedroom, still flying high from learning she will be interviewing for a personnel-level position at the FBI.

When Stan tells her he’s just looking at the moon, she takes a look, admires the moon as well, and goes to bed.

Renee (Laurie Holden) has fairly reeked of being a Soviet illegal, yet her purpose in the narrative has not been made clear. Handler Claudia told Philip ages ago she didn’t know whether or not Renee was a Soviet—but Claudia has lied to Philip and Elizabeth in the past. Another lie wouldn’t be unusual.

From Stan’s vantage point, we see Elizabeth arrive home. She’s surprised, and not pleasantly so, to hear Russian dialogue unspooling as she enters the house. Philip shuts off the video, but she has more important matters to discuss.

She reveals what she learned about Soviet negotiator Nesterenko, how she refused to kill him, and that Philip’s “guy” (ex-KGB agent Oleg) is correct about there being a plot to overthrow Gorbachev.

Philip gives her a note he’s received about their needing to meet with Russian Orthodox priest Father Andrei, who is a spy contact and also the man who conducted years ago a genuine marriage ceremony between Philip and Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is too over-booked to meet with Father Andrei, as she needs to keep an eye on Nesterenko to prevent other operatives from assassinating him.

Frankly, she’s still hacked off at Philip for lying to her. About Andrei, she remarks as she’s leaving, “Maybe he can give you absolution.”

Two more episodes to go. Catch The Americans on a binge-watch (various sites) or for the next two Wednesdays on FX.


CONTRIBUTOR

Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.

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